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"It was a dark and stormy night..."

At the confluence of the province’s longest river and its largest tributary, where the murkier waters of the Fraser meet the blue currents of the Thompson, is a village set within the Fraser Canyon. For the past 10,000 years the land has been inhabited by Nlaka’pamux First Nations people. Originally, the area was known as Cumchin--nowadays, Kumsheen--, a name meaning “where the rivers cross.” White settlers would refer to it as “The Forks”, no doubt another reference to its geography. But in 1858, at the height of colonization, the village would receive another name, one that would forever connect it to one of the most criticized lines in all of English literature.

The novel Paul Clifford opens with, “It was a dark and stormy night…” and though it continues, time has seen this specific string of words become synonymous with  pitiful writing. The author, aside from being a prolific and well-received writer in his lifetime, was also a Baron and politician who assisted with the colonization of British Columbia. He worked to organize a police force to manage the crime borne out of the surge of prospectors looking to strike gold. 

He was also the man for whom the village of Lytton, B.C. is named.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton was born in London in 1803 to an aristocratic family. But after marrying--and subsequently separating from--a woman his mother did not approve of, his allowance was cut off, forcing him to support himself and his family through writing. He wrote novels, plays, ghost stories and was also responsible for composing a number of wise and still well-used sayings, including “the pen is mightier than the sword”, “the great unwashed” and “the almighty dollar.” 

He was good friends with esteemed author, Charles Dickens, and is said to have persuaded the writer to change the ending to the classic Great Expectations. The two rivaled one another in book sales, but Dickens named a son after his contemporary--Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens. The Baron even influenced the cooking extract Bovril of all things. The item’s inventor, John Lawson Johnston, using Bo (bovine) and a reference to one of Bulwer-Lytton’s works featuring a group of beings living underground who obtain their power from a mysterious fluid known as Vril, created a portmanteau to name his product. But despite all this, Edward Bulwer-Lytton is most well-known for, or perhaps most derided for, those simple seven words, “It was a dark and stormy night…”

The contempt for this infamous line is well-documented, with many articles and individuals critiquing just how wretched it is. In 1982, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest was spawned by San Jose State University professor, Scott Rice. For nearly forty years, thousands have tried to pen opening sentences awful enough to rival Bulwer-Lytton, with winners, “[i]n keeping with the gravitas, high seriousness, and general bignitude of the contest...receiv[ing] a pittance.” In 2008, Rice even debated the great-great-great grandson of the writer, Honourable Henry Lytton Cobbold in the village of Lytton over whether or not the Baron was a good writer. Though Cobbold emerged the victor, Rice’s contest continues to attract entrants from around the world, competing for recognition in different categories. The following examples showcase the comedic and literary talent it takes to write something truly terrible:

In his passion, he tore at her clothes, popping the buttons off her blouse, causing her to moan deeply, as she dreaded the thought of having to find beige buttons on the off-white carpeting, to say nothing of her hatred of sewing and her hopes that her favourite blouse wasn’t ruined.

-Mike Bowerbank, Vancouver, B.C., Canada, Dishonourable Mentions, Romance 2020

Basking under the blazing New Mexico sun as he stood in the dusty street outside the saloon, Old West certified public accountant Arthur W. Fetterman Jr. hovered his sweaty hand over the butt of his borrowed six-gun, advanced another reluctant step toward famed gunfighter John Wesley Hardin and wondered for the hundredth time what had possessed him to correct the man’s use of “supposably” during their poker game.

-Bill White, Allentown, PN, USA, Winner, Western 2017

Of course, Bulwer-Lytton’s notorious phrase is difficult to beat.  Still, the line has been Snoopy’s go-to for writing throughout Peanuts history. Madeleine L’Engle even begins her cherished children’s novel, A Wrinkle in Time, the same way. Perhaps it’s because the sentence, though redundant--night is indeed dark--equates to something else, something more; the feeling of being inside while a raucous storm rages overhead, a sense of mystery or foreboding. 

In another way, the phrase lends itself to little else. The novel it opens is not a haunted tale, but one of a highwayman during the French Revolution. Bulwer-Lytton’s name being tied to the line offers a limited view of the man, his work and his storied life. Further still, the village of Lytton being named for the writer reflects almost nothing of the rich and important past of the Nlaka’pamux First Nations people, the thousands of Chinese labourers who worked to construct the CPR line through the Fraser Canyon and the area’s connection to the Gold Rush. But perhaps that’s the nature of history, to look beyond the name, the place as it is and see what it was.


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